Chris Zimmerman is leaving the Arlington County Board for Smart Growth America. His message: Smart Growth is good for economic development, and other localities can benefit by Arlington’s example.
by James A. Bacon
Christopher Zimmerman, a member of the Arlington County Board since 1998, is going to preach what he practices. A leading architect of the county’s walkable, transit-oriented urbanism, he has 16 years of hands-on experience applying the ideas of Smart Growth in a real-world setting. When his term expires early next year, he will join Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization promoting Smart Growth where, as vice president of economic development, he will take his knowledge national.
“It’s a great opportunity to work on issues I care a lot about,” Zimmerman told Bacon’s Rebellion Friday. Other communities can benefit from Arlington’s incredible economic success story. He concedes that the county does enjoy assets that are impossible to replicate, such as a location in the heart of the prosperous Washington metropolitan region and one of the highest per-capita incomes in the county. But every community has something special to build on, he says. Many of the principles honed in Arlington can be applied broadly.
Smart Growth enhances economic development in at least three ways, Zimmerman says. One is the fiscal benefit of building compact, walkable, transit-oriented communities instead of the car-centric sprawl that has prevailed in America’s suburbs since World War II. Compact development allows municipal governments to spend less on roads, water, sewer, school buses, garbage collection, fire fighting and other government services. Lower costs translate into lower county expenditures.
Secondly, Smart Growth creates more real estate wealth. The suburban development of the last couple of generations has a short life-cycle, Zimmerman explains. Buildings in malls, shopping centers and office parks depreciate rapidly in line with accelerated write-offs permitted by the tax code. The buildings, surrounded by acres of parking lots, are forgettable and disposable. As such real estate ages, it loses value, and then it gets trumped by a newer project down the road. By contrast, Smart Growth invests for lasting value. The emphasis on place making — designing walkable streets and complementary building uses where people are willing to pay a premium to live, work and play — makes Smart Growth development more valuable over the years.
Thirdly, Zimmerman argues, Smart Growth communities attract young, tech-savvy knowledge workers — the creative class — that big corporations and fast-growth enterprises covet. “The companies driving the economy are focused on attracting a certain kind of workforce. They need to go where that workforce is. The striking tendency of the Millennial generation is that they pick where they want to live before they pick their job. … They are interested in place, and place making becomes a very important element of any economic development strategy.”
Many people seek what Zimmerman calls “authenticity” — places steeped in local history and culture that can’t be stamped out every 15 years in a new location. “The market is screaming at us that it wants walkable places that are authentic and unique destinations.”
Unlike many localities, Arlington doesn’t give incentives to businesses that invest in the county. Indeed, the conversation is usually the other way around — what can the business offer the county? The key, says Zimmerman, is creating such a desirable location that property owners and tenants don’t need special subsidies or tax breaks to locate there.
Instead of paying incentives, which benefit only the company receiving the special treatment, Arlington’s philosophy is to pay for public investment in infrastructure and place-making that benefits everyone. The county has non-cash goodies that it can dispense such as higher density or a relaxation of parking requirements but it usually expects something in return — public improvements or Transportation Demand Management programs that encourage employees to take walk, bike or ride transit to work. Public improvements asked of businesses, Zimmerman says, are usually geared to place-making. When all property owners contributes to creating higher quality places, they enjoy the benefit of higher value and higher rents.
The “Arlington way” has worked exceptionally well at creating real-estate value and generating revenue. While taxpayers grumble at the county’s extravagant expenditures — the county spends more per pupil than any other jurisdiction in the Washington region, and plans to build 20 bus stops at $1 million a piece caused a furor earlier this year — the county’s real estate property tax rate, 97.1 cents per $100, compares favorably to prosperous next-door-neighbor Fairfax County’s rate of $1.085. Arlingtonians also enjoy more transportation options than anywhere else in Virginia, allowing some to pursue a “car free” lifestyle that shaves thousands of dollars from household budgets. And, thanks to a high rate of mass transit utilization, Arlington has among the least congested roads and streets in the Washington region.
The Arlington Board has pursued an unwavering, decades-long vision of supporting mass transit and densifying development around the Metro stations while protecting single-family neighborhoods. But success owes much to a felicitous location. For many years, Arlington benefited from being close to the seat of political power in Washington, D.C., without actually being governed by D.C., and its dysfunctional political culture. The county became the region’s leading address for the trade associations and advocacy groups that do business in the nation’s capital. Also, as home to the Pentagon, it was the natural home for government contractors arising from the spending boom in defense, intelligence and, since 9/11, homeland security.
In the past decade or two, City Hall in Washington has gotten its act together, crime has fallen and the District has become much more competitive as a business location and as a place to live. But Arlington continues to prosper, luring not only business investment but some of the most affluent residents of the metropolitan region. In 2011, median household income exceeded $100,000, about twice the national average. Population, which bottomed out at 154,000 in 1980, has rebounded to 221,000.
While Arlington is best known for its clustering of higher-density development around its Metro stations, an asset that few other localities in American have or even can hope to have, Zimmerman insists that the Arlington model has much to offer. He points to the Shirlington “village,” off Interstate 395, as an example of Smart Growth in the absence of Metro. Shirlington consists of 25 acres nestled up to a cloverleaf interchange. The county has guided its re-development as a walkable, mixed-use area with offices, apartments, retail and entertainment, including an urban-footprint grocery store, a post office, a theater and a transit station that handles 400 to 500 buses per day. Says Zimmerman: “It’s generating a lot more tax revenue than when it was mostly parking lot.”
Another non-Metro template for re-development is Columbia Pike. The thoroughfare was built originally around automobile accessibility back when Arlington was little more than a dormitory for D.C. government employees. But Arlington has shifted back to the “Main Street” model of walkable development by permitting higher-density development and implementing a form-based code, which regulates the physical form of buildings, not the land uses. “It’s obviously a work in progress,” says Zimmerman, “but people are walking on the street every day.”
The next step in Columbia Pike’s evolution is the addition of a streetcar line. In contrast to the Metro, where the county encourages dense development within a 1/4-mile radius of the stations, the street car will support development along a tight linear corridor. The justification for the project is that the distances between destinations are too far to walk. The street car will function as a “pedestrian accelerator;” people will be able to hop on and hop off. “It’s much more attractive to someone thinking of investing in a six-story building,” Zimmerman says. A big investment is a lot more interesting “if I know there’s a commitment to high-quality transit.”
That project has been controversial on many grounds, not the least of which is skepticism that it can be built for the $250 million estimated by the county. Even if it can, Arlington would pay for only $104 million of the sum by imposing a special real estate tax on properties aligning the corridor, but the project would depend upon support from other sources, including the Commonwealth of Virginia and the federal government. Critics also point out that revenues the street car service won’t even cover its operating costs. In September, the county hired a consulting firm to study the project’s Return on Investment.
Zimmerman justifies the investment in money-losing mass transit on the grounds that it stimulates high-density development that more than makes up the difference.
Yes, Arlington “subsidizes” its mass transit, Zimmerman says, in the sense that fare box revenues do not cover the capital or operating costs. But transit adds to real estate value, which more than offsets the cost of providing the transportation asset, and it replaces space devoted to parking with buildings that yield much higher tax revenue. He points to “a couple” of recently announced projects along Columbia Pike that will generate $8 million in yearly tax revenues. Says he: “There’s potential for many more of those along the line. We’re going to be collecting a whole lot of revenue we wouldn’t otherwise get.”
Smart Growth makes sense for communities everywhere, Zimmerman says. “Even if it’s a much smaller scale, even if people get there by car, you get value by getting the cars out of the way so you can walk. Whatever your economy is, a strategy that focuses on create place, building on existing assets and creating a walkable environment is going to have more value than simply following the old formulas.”There are currently no comments highlighted.